Why Teach?

By Erin Hallissy
Illustrations by Jennifer Burkhardt

More than 18,000 California teachers leave the profession each year, but others find joy in the classroom

Many people go into teaching to influence children, others are inspired by teachers who influenced them. But educators are increasingly burning out quickly, discouraged by problems ranging from poor working conditions and a lack of regard for teachers to violence on campuses and continual pressure to prepare students for standardized tests, according to a California State University report on teacher retention released in May 2007. The same month, Saint Mary’s brought together five dedicated teachers and administrators, trained in the College’s School of Education, for a discussion on the challenges they face and what keeps them in the classroom. The conversation between Deanna Early, Abe Doctolero, Chantal LaCrampe, Joe Ianora and Leyla Benson was moderated by David Krapf, an associate professor who teaches in the School of Education. It was edited for space and clarity.

What are the joys of teaching?

Early: It is a joy to wake up in the morning and have a sense of purpose every day. More fun than that is watching one student put a Band-Aid on another student’s finger or watching the kids carry the compost bucket around and saying “Do you have any orange peels?” or watching a little boy get so excited about division, like it’s the bomb, the best thing that ever happened in the whole world.

Ianora: I’d like to echo that. It’s always the excitement, the adrenaline of what’s going to happen today, what problem are we going to solve, what neat thing are we going to have happen, what am I going to be part of? Because I’m working with young people, I get to see this cool process unfold, which is learning.

LaCrampe: Their energy and enthusiasm is very contagious. When fifth-grade girls come up to grab your hand and hold it, you know those moments of innocence are so fleeting. And watching boys goof off at stuff that next year in middle school they would never be caught dead doing. You get to be a participant and observer of such a phenomenal thing with these children.

Benson: I work in an intervention program with 160 at-risk kids based on poor attendance. I’ve been blessed to be part of it. This is my life and it’s my family, and I love it. I learn every day from my students. I’m in awe of them. Some people may say they’ve failed, but they come every day and they have some of the hardest lives I’ve witnessed. I have almost three years with them. I feel really connected to them. They tell me “When you do this, you’re mad. When you do that, you’re sad.” They teach me about myself. And the same vice versa. I know them.


Doctolero: It’s all about that connection we have with the kids. I could not walk away from looking kids in the eye and give them less than they needed and deserved.

What are some obstacles teachers face?

Early: Because I’m in an alternative classroom, I don’t have to teach to the test every day, but I hear more and more from teachers in other schools that they feel like every day they’re having to give another assessment. My son’s teacher was so frustrated that she couldn’t make connections with her students because she was under all the rules and regulations with the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) laws.

Is No Child Left Behind an obstacle?

Doctolero: It’s a double-edged sword. Had we as a profession served all of our children well over these past generations, we wouldn’t be looking at this level of assessment. We underserved our kids, the neediest kids especially, and we got away with averages. And now we’re paying the price. I think the upside is that now we must be able to document how well we are serving those students.

Ianora: The testing is necessary, but if we have good curriculum that’s aligned with the state standards, then the test is nothing more than a simple gauge for us to use to see if we taught our curriculum and matched the state framework.

Benson: When my principal came in, (the curriculum and scores) were not aligning. Students would be getting an A in English, and they would take a standardized California test and they were not proficient. Now we’re giving eight-week assessments to make sure that everyone is accountable. When we go to the standardized test, we want the A at Pittsburg High School to be the same as the A at San Ramon Valley High School.

LaCrampe: Our students get high grades. We’re very blessed to have a highly involved parent community. The parents expect us to maintain creativity. The standards and the curriculum provide guidelines, but within that you create engaging opportunities for the kids.
Ianora: The other piece is collaboration. Teaching can be very isolating. You don’t just pick out one person to be the pro in the classroom any more. You need a team of pros.

Benson: The assessments brought us together. We sat down and I saw what other teachers were doing in the classroom. We were showing and sharing, saying “What if you did that to kick it up a notch?” Within my intervention program, since there are only eight teachers, we’re talking every day. It’s all about this community working together and making everyone — teachers, students — feel like they belong.

Doctolero: Research tells us that the two biggest elements in any child’s learning are socioeconomics and the relationship with their teachers. The cliché is true — they don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care.

Benson: That’s what our academy is based on — the students will work for you if they know you’ll work for them. They want to know, “Are you going to give up on me, or are you going to stick with me?”

Do teachers view themselves more as technicians than professionals?

LaCrampe: They do feel like technicians. They feel the pressure of the test. It’s definitely expressed in staff meetings. Sometimes the principal is just expressing the word of the district or the state, but you see that frustration coming out.

Ianora: A lot of times teachers don’t feel their self-worth. We forget as educators that we are highly valued people, and nobody gets to do what we do, and that is to shape a child’s life. It’s tough for me sometimes to get my staff to believe that they are professionals and what they do is truly just as great as building a car or being a CEO.

Doctolero: Many people don’t understand the emotional toll of teaching. It’s you and 36 kids. It’s emotionally draining. I used to look at my staff and wonder how can they do this day in and day out.

What about parental involvement?

Early: When the family’s involved in the education, it’s more successful. On the other hand in a more affluent area, parents may not honor our professionalism and want to come in and tell us “Johnny needs a different spelling list, this one isn’t hard enough for him.” They are very interested in having their children become those CEOs or whatever by the time they’re in third grade. But for you (Benson), the opposite is true.

Benson: I have never had a parent call and complain that their kids aren’t being given the right assignments. It does make a difference if students have a very stable home and very involved parents. That is why we are keeping our kids until 5:20 at night. We’re getting all the homework done. We’re making sure they get the proper nutrition. I find a lot of joy in almost mimicking the home in our school- within-a-school. I get to sort of be a family with my students.

Early: Another challenge is the exposure of kids to television, the Internet, video games. Some are coming to school with their brains fried from already having been on Game Boys for two hours. Maybe parents don’t have any idea how much the attention of the kids is affected.

Do other people feel that impact?

Ianora: I have noticed it’s tougher to engage students than it was when I started in the profession. I hate to say they’re more distracted, but there are a lot of other things that are going on.

Benson: My principal says compete with the video games, compete with the TV. Be in front of your classroom, walk around.

Doctolero: You absolutely have to compete for their hearts and their minds and sometimes for their souls, because the streets will take them in a second. There were five rival street gangs around Jefferson High School in Daly City in 1974. We worked for a year and a half as a school just to get truces between two Asian gangs, a Samoan gang and two black gangs so that there would not be gunfire within a block of the school.

So what would keep a teacher in the classroom?

LaCrampe: In doing my doctoral thesis on teacher retention, I looked at four teachers, all in their sixth year and all working with impoverished populations. (They all) felt that they could relate to their students. There is that idea of a connection, a belief that you can impact that group. There’s such a profound loss of talent when new teachers come in with energy and they’re leaving before there’s a chance to build the school community with them.

Doctolero: To me, that goes back to an interface between the school, the community and the new teacher. When I was in human resources hiring teachers, we were trying to screen not only for background and experience, but also whether this person will fit into this community. Is there a way we can do that?

LaCrampe: It just has to happen. If you’re giving them good role models to work with, I think your chances of losing them are much lower than just by screening them at the application process.

Benson: When my principal hired me, I walked in and he looked at me and said “Whoa, she is not a match.” I came from an affluent background. I’m a preppie, cutesy, all this stuff. He said “I’m going to give you a chance.” The key to being successful is being authentic with your students. They’re curious about you, just like you’re curious about them.

Doctolero: Isn’t it amazing when you run into them at the supermarket and they say you actually …

Benson: Have a life? (laughs) I teach with a woman who grew up in the worst area of Pittsburg. She really identifies with the students and they really love her and say, “That’s somebody I can really relate to because she’s the same as me.” Sometimes students will ask me questions, “How did you grow up like you did? How did your parents do that?” And that’s what life is about, meeting different people and learning different things about them.

Ianora: Part of me is jealous you still get to do this stuff. And then I think, “How do I help you do the things that you need to do, things like providing a good support program, things like making sure that we have a new teacher mentor program?”

Benson: Saint Mary’s provided me with an unbelievable mentor. Just like we want our students to feel supported, we have to make sure our staff feels that way. If you feel isolated and you can’t relate to anybody and nobody cares about you, nobody likes you, you’re not going to stick around.

Ianora: That’s the piece I need to work on – forming better relationships. I want to spend more time with Saint Mary’s, with Chapman (University) in developing these relationships because we can be of great service to each other. Isolation is the biggest factor. (Teachers) are burned out. You work by yourself in this emotionally draining job and you don’t have anywhere to recharge your batteries. We need to do a better job of supporting you.

Is there an adequate system for supporting new teachers?

LaCrampe: A common attitude about BTSA (California’s Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program) is that it’s a lot of paperwork and it’s tedious. I went through BTSA and I had a great mentor.

Early: The best support system that I have seen for new teachers has been the rest of the staff on our campus and our administration. We share everything. We eat lunch together every day. There’s just amazing collaboration. I had a high number of 6-year-old boys diagnosed with attention deficit disorder this year and I was really struggling. All the teachers were willing to take one of those little boys and we spread them out and rearranged classrooms. None of those boys are interfering with each other’s learning anymore.

What would you tell a teacher who is seriously thinking about leaving the profession to make them stay?

Benson: I’d try to show them the impact that they’ve had on students. If they knew they were making a difference that might make a difference.

Doctolero: If they think it’s time and they’re not enthusiastic about teaching, they should leave very quickly.

Ianora: It is such a demanding job. I could give them a better classroom, better preparation, more pay, but if you’re not there, there’s nothing I can do to make you stay.

Early: A friend of mine left and became a Weight Watchers guide. She was a brilliant teacher, she’d have 40 students hanging on her every word, but when she wanted to leave there was nothing we could say to make her stay. She was emotionally done.

LaCrampe: Not everybody is made for teaching. It’s a wonderful profession, but it’s hard.